Home » Aviation » Boeing Examining High-Use Super Hornets to Validate Life-Extension Plans; Already Buying Material, Setting Up Facility

Boeing Examining High-Use Super Hornets to Validate Life-Extension Plans; Already Buying Material, Setting Up Facility

An F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to the Stingers of Strike Fighter Attack Squadron (VFA) 113 prepares to land on the flight deck aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). US Navy photo.

The Boeing team preparing for the F/A-18E-F Super Hornet service life modification (SLM) program has begun tearing into one of the fleet’s most-used aircraft and found the plane does not have as much age-related damage as predicted, the company’s service life modification program director told USNI News.

When Boeing and the Navy sought to extend the life of the legacy F/A-18A-D Hornets past the original 6,000 hours of flight time to 9,000 or 10,000 hours, major structural damage was found in many of the planes and the life-extension work took longer than anticipated, as the Boeing team had to wait on additional materials and figure out how to address unforeseen work.

This time around, as the newer Super Hornets are brought in for a similar life extension, Boeing completed a Service Life Assessment Program to predict age-related damage to the planes, and the company is now validating those predictions against two learning airplanes – high-use jets, one of them being the fleet leader in catapult launches and arrested recoveries.

“We have not found any significant indications beyond what we were expecting. In fact, in some areas we found significantly less than what we were expecting,” SLM program director Mark Sears told USNI News on Oct. 17.
“But that’s just the first aircraft, we still have the second one we have to get into.”

He cautioned that Northrop Grumman still has to complete its work on the aft end of that first aircraft, and then the companies will tear apart the second learning plane for additional information.

But so far, “we haven’t found anything that resembles some of the major issues that the classic Hornet had. … That said, from the number of locations on the aircraft we’re attacking in order to get the life extension, I would call it, from a planned work perspective, commensurate in terms of the number of locations and degree of difficulty of accessibility. But again, we haven’t found any of those kind of big bone structural issues that the classic Hornet ran into.”

Before Boeing cut into the first learning aircraft, the team conducted an age exploration piece, which looked at both the material condition of the planes and sought to understand how internal components could best be reached from the outside when the modifications begin. On the material condition piece, Sears said the two planes looked “actually very good” and “better than we would have expected,” given the condition of some of the other Super Hornets that have come through Boeing’s Cecil Field for depot maintenance work.

On the accessibility piece, he said it was a mixed bag.

“We thought we were going to have to remove wings to gain access to some locations to do the [service life extension program] mods. We proved that we were not going to have to do that, which is great – that’s both a lot of effort in terms of turnaround time and duration as well as the opportunity to introduce risk,” he said.
“We did learn we were going to have to remove some fuel cells to gain access, and while that’s not great news, it allows us to plan for it and get ahead of it in the supply chain.”

Now that the first plane has been torn apart, the company is looking for signs of other damage not predicted in the assessment program, which would then be analyzed and potentially added into the work package if it is likely to be a prevalent problem.

The outer skin of the first Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is fitted to its forward fuselage on a pulse assembly line in St. Louis. Boeing photo.

Even as this learning process is still underway, the company is already ordering materials and getting the production facility set up for the first aircraft’s induction, which now appears to be set for April 2018.

Four airplanes will come in for the SLM work in calendar year 2018, and those will be worked on in St. Louis, where the company also builds new Super Hornets. Having the life-extension work take place near the production engineering team leverages a lot of experience, and it also provides more options if material is delivered late, or the first couple planes require unplanned work.

Ultimately, about 80 percent of the airplanes will be worked on in San Antonio, Texas, in a facility set to begin accepting aircraft in 2019. Prior to that facility opening, Sears said the idea was to “validate things here in St. Louis and then replicate them down in San Antonio.” Once the San Antonio facility is up and running, Sears said Boeing expects to be working on about 50 airplanes at any given time. While the first plane is expected to take about 18 months to complete – the company will have an idea of how to sequence the work but will learn a lot when they actually conduct that work package on a plane – Sears said later planes will hopefully take closer to 12 months.

Material is already being purchased, he said, though as to specifically what each aircraft will require, “at this point, it’s a guess. It’s a guess based on data, but it’s still a guess. So we’re erring on the side of buying heavy early, trying to buy down risk on material lead time for those first jets. But our forecast – we’ve shown this on other programs – as we go through quantity, our forecast will get much much better in terms of being able to predict quantity of parts over time,” Sears said.
“There will be materials challenges; it’s how we respond that will make or break this.”

Finally, the company is still in talks with the Navy about incorporating capability improvements into the life-extension program.

“The Navy has said SLM is not your traditional SLEP program, it’s their comprehensive service life [modification] program. So to focus solely on getting the structure to survive but not focusing on capabilities is, I think, shortsighted, is what they’ve said,” Sears said.

Boeing believes its Block 2 aircraft – the majority of Super Hornets flying today, and the configuration coming off the production line today – are the best candidates for the Block 3 capability upgrade. The Navy is in talks with the company about introducing a package of upgrades into the new production line in late 2020, Sears said, with planning and engineering taking place between now and then. Retrofitting the upgrades into the planes going through the SLM process could piggyback off that planning and start a few years after being inserted into the production line.

“It’s a great opportunity to insert capability like the Block 3 in a method that is least impactful to the fleet, so that when an aircraft is returned with an extended life it’s also got the right capabilities for the next decade,” Sears said.

  • NavySubNuke

    More money and time being spent on efforts that are only necessary because of the F-35 arriving late…..

    • Duane

      It’s not “only” due to the F-35 arriving late, because the Navy never planned to buy very many F-35Cs (only 260) and so never planned to fully replace its F/A 18 fleet with F-35s. And the Navy could easily have elected to buy Super Hornets – Boeing still makes them today, and the Navy still buys them.

      It’s mainly due to the very high naval aviation operating tempo in the ridiculous Iraq War that resulted in far more operating hours on the Navy aircraft (and Marine aircraft) than in the decade prior to 2003. Our entire military got largely “used up” in the multi-trillion dollar debacle in the desert. We burned a heckuva lot of operating hours on our hundred million dollar aircraft killing jihadis in pickup trucks, while the Chinese and Russians and Iranians smirked at our costly quagmire.

      • Mk-Ultra

        Isn’t it also a bit of a good thing? What makes americas armed forces is how much they’re trained + experience of combat and using the expensive hardware America spends billions to make. If a world war were to break out again and huge advantage America will have extensive experience America has had for fighting wars for the last decade however ridiculous being in a war is.

        China, Russia and Iran can smirk at the costly quagmire all day too but America also has the budget to spend for wars unlike those nations which has trouble just maintaining their militaries

        • Duane

          I would say we could afford to waste thousands of lives, both 7,000 KIA and another hundred thousand maimed for life – and could afford to waste trillions of dollars on jihadis in pickup trucks in Iraq, if it were true, Unfortunately, we could not then, and cannot now. We have done a rotten job prioritizing our national security risks ever since AQ literally drove us crazy with the 9.11.01 attacks – and totally blinded the USA to the real threats coming from the big four – China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea – who actually threaten our existence.

          The jihadis were never going to be able to replicate 9.11.01 after we woke up to that vulnerability in civil aviation. But no, that was not enough. We had to go into the Middle East and try to undo thousands of years of human culture with soldiers and JDAMs and showering American dollars on primitive tribal societies.

          So here we are, with a sequester that prevents our military from properly maintaining the aircraft we have (only 52% of all naval warbirds are functional today), and buying the new aircraft we need, and the ships that we need, and so forth, in the Army, Navy, Marines,and Air Force. Those wasted lives and wasted dollars can never be recovered.

          It’s long past time to reassess and reprioritize our national defense expenditures. The effects of trying to do everything while doing many things poorly has got to end.

    • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

      The lateness wouldn’t be anywhere near as troublesome if the fleet wasn’t flogged into the dirt by nearly 16 years of constant operations.

      Delays are all but ubiquitous.
      It’s the ops tempo that is ruinous…. compounded by insufficient replacements.

      But the F-35C isn’t replacing the Super Hornet.
      The Rhino has its own continued purchase path and eventual replacement.

  • Ed L

    Better than expected!! Right. Is Boeing still pushing for conformal fuel tanks, an advanced cockpit system and a new engine that the company says would add even more range and warfighting capability. Now let’s get more flying time for our aviators

  • CharleyA

    The article only hints at this, but should we be focusing the SLM process on Block II jets rather than spending money on the older, less capable Block I / early lot jets? Unless the older Super Hornets can be retrofitted with AESAs, perhaps those jets should be relegated to tanking duties to finish out their service life until the MQ-25 comes along. Maybe a modified SLM that only repairs structurally deficient parts in those aircraft? Why not invest the money saved on not doing every upgrade on the early lot jets into buying more new Super Hornets?

    • Horn

      That’s … not a bad idea. You’d still have to do SLEP for the structure, but that would eliminate costs. The only downside is attrition. Wouldn’t you want your aircraft to be combat capable to replace combat or attrition losses?

  • Arthur Vallejo

    An excellent fighter (Super Hornet) necessitated by confidential weaknesses ( immense RCS and inferior durability + reliability) in the F-14 fleet. Super Hornet Block II should be upgraded to Block III ASAP. Similarly, the USN must pursue the technological advances of the F-35C because war with North Korea looks unavoidable because they are mass-producing ICBMs with miniaturized Teller-Ullam warheads. Breaking new technological ground is never cheap or easy. The behaviour of the PROC and the RF towards the aforementioned conflict cannot be predicted. Hence the USN must be well prepared to deter escalations of Herman Kahn’s Ladder.

    • Duane

      You’re sort of on to something, except for the part about buying Block III SHs.

      Instead of trying to patch up a four decade old design and still ending up with a non-survivable fighter at 2/3 the cost of a new fully survivable F-35C, just sh*tcan the run out Super Hornets and accelerate our purchase of F-35s.

      The Super Hornets worked great, if the primary mission was to take hundred million dollar aircraft and successfully attack jihadis in ten thousand dollar pickup trucks in the deserts of Iraq. It used to be that’s what we thought the military was for – strangely enough, how stupid was that?!

      But if the real mission is to stop wasting our resources playing whackamole with jihadis in the Middle East, and instead focus on being able to defeat the Chinese and Russians and Iranians and NORKS … you know, real countries … where they have actual capable air defenses and opposing fighters and ships and carriers that can shoot back, then stop wasting money on SHs and instead buy as many F-35s as fast as we can.

      • Bryan

        Duane, I hear what you are saying but two main problems emerge. The F-35 is now well on it’s way. But it’s not there yet.
        Second and most important to the argument is that, we as a country are BROKE. 20T in debt is going to hurt my grand/great grand children’s life far more than North Korea. Nations such as the U.S. tend to loose their resiliency as the age of empire wears thin.

        This country needs to get more bang for it’s buck. It needs the F-35/22/B2 to kick in a door and knock down the sam’s while more low end fighters/bombers do the rest. The same is true of ships, missiles, etc. That’s not sexy warporn hardware but it is vitally important.

        We are the greatest fighting force right now. But we are more fragile economically and morally as a nation. We need to fix our economic house.
        As for playing with real nations, what we need as a military force is to stop being a patron and start being a partner or friend to other nations. We see this happening with GB and Australia. We need to expand that as much as possible.

        • Duane

          I don’t buy that we are fragile or broke. We are still the world’s largest economy, nearly double that of the no. 2 (China) and on a per capita basis nearly ten times that of no. 2. Our economy is also growing, ever since the great recession ended in 2009. We still have the world’s strongest defense, by far (by many multiples of any potential opponent). The world’s strongest military defends the world’s strongest economy. That is neither an accident nor a coincidence … one begets the other.

          If we have excessive deficits it is because we don’t tax enough. Politicians don’t have the courage to ask for tax increases to pay for all they things they vote to fund. Both defense and non-defense.

          • muzzleloader

            We don’t tax enough? Duanne, I don’t know about you, but most of us are being taxed out the wazoo. The key is the last paragraph you wrote about the political class not having the courage to tax more for the things they vote to fund, and therein is the problem. There is simply too many new “things”. The welfare state is out of control, the monster called obamacare is a disaster, and half of our lawmakers want a new federal program to aliviate our nations ills. If we could somehow get back to our governments constitutional role of providing for national defense, and enforcing laws, providing the funds for any combat platform we need would not be a problem. We don’t need to be taxed more, our government needs to spend less.

          • Duane

            We spend what we spend, but we don’t tax enough to cover it. That’s what they call “deficit spending”, and since the 1960s we’ve been spending more than we take in in tax revenues. So yes, we do not tax enough.

            The politicians never have the backbone to insist on living within our means. Government will never spend less, you know it … you conservatives have been yowling that forever, despite conservative congresses and presidents repeatedly engaging in deficit spending. It’s kabuki theater – “conservatives” pretend to care about the budget until they are in charge, then all of a sudden it becomes trickle down benefits for the poor and middle class. Liberals pretend to care about defense and deficits, but constantly vote to increase social spending but do not want to tax anybody but the “rich”, which is the upper fraction of one percent of the voting public.

            The end result is always the same – we do not tax enough to cover the spending that politicians – resndponding to the voters’ will, mind you, in order to win reelection – and so it continues.

            Liberals and conservatives alike are hypocritical liars and cheats – there is not a millimeter of differences between them.

          • muzzleloader

            The reason that there is no difference between the dems ad the repubs, is because the republicans have abandoned conservative thinking since Barry Goldwater. The republicans have totally betrayed conservatives. Ronald Reagan was the exception, one of our nations greatest.There are a small band of true conservatives in congress,but they are voices in the wilderness. The rest have sold out to the establishment, the ruling class composed of both parties, neither which give a blast about America or her people. The main occupation of congressmen or women, is reelection. And hence we have exactly what you describe, kabuki theatre. This is why Trump got elected. Many people across the spectrum are simply sick and tired of the establishment of both parties, and they see Trump, the ultimate outsider, as the last shot to turn things around.
            The truth is, that neither side wants to reduce spending, or pass a real budget,or lower taxes, or control our border, or anything that concerns americans.
            The Washington brokers care only for what will profit them, their reelections, and their futures.
            It is as you stated, the career politicos lack the guts to live within our means, because their lobbyists and campaign contributors own them.

  • Duane

    It would be interesting to see the cost data for these service life extensions. I am sure it costs much less than to buy a new Super Hornet, given that new manufacture SHs selling for upwards of $200M today. The F-35C in current LRIP-10 sells for much less at $121M, headed down to around $100M at FRP in two years. If we are spending $40M or $50M to remanufacture a bird that is far less capable than a F-35,then the money would be better spent buying F-35s. 24:1 kill ratio, guys.

    • Mk-Ultra

      I just started browsing this website last night, spend a few hours reading around. I noticed your comments more than anyone else. You comment a lot + detailed explanations. Might not mean much to you but as someone who doesn’t know much about military hardware, reading the article+your posts has given me a lot of info. Neat stuff. It’s appreciated stranger

    • Bryan

      Where are you getting the cost of 200M for a super hornet? I believe they are somewhere in the ball park of 80M for the plane and that’s for the Advanced SH.
      Now your comment might be valid to buying new F-18’s over a SLM but certainly not the F-35. The whole high/low mix is a valid idea. When considering the unproven nature of the F-35 it is best to stick with a low mix of F-18’s for now.

      • Duane

        We just approved a deal for Canada to buy just 18 Super Hornets, with spares and weapons, for $277M a bird. Fully equipping them with a crap load of AIM 120s and JDAMs, and allowing a generous 20% of airframe cost for spares (a very high number), it still comes to over $200M per airframe.

        We just sold Bahrain a bunch of F-16Vs at over $150M each, not including spares and weapons. The F-16 is much cheaper to build and fly than a Super Hornet.

        When people think or quote figures of $65M or $70M for a Super Hornet, that was 1990s and early 00s pricing, which inflation makes much higher today 15 to 20 years later. And that was back when Boeing was producing large numbers of Super Hornets, while today Boeing is only churning out 10 or 20 airframes a year, if that. Meanwhile the F-35 is being produced at over 100 airframes a year now, ramping up to over 240 birds a year within two years from now. Volume pricing makes a huge difference.

        Plus, today’s state of the art sensors and flight management computers and electronic countermeasures and fire control systems are far more capable, and far more expensive, than the 1980s and 1990s tech that went into the current Block II Super Hornets. The weapons are also a lot more capable and a lot more expensive.

        • muzzleloader

          Regarding the Super Hornet sale to Canada that the US approved, while true, it remains to be seen wether the Canadian PM will actually sign off on it.

          • Duane

            Right now it seems extremely unlikely, as the Canadian defense minister has already said the RCAF plans to ax the Boeing contract in retribution for the trade complaint that Boeing filed against Canada’s Bombardier over the C series airliners, which resulted in the Dept. of Commerce levying a 200% tariff against Bombardier. Then both Bombardier and Airbus punked Boeing by inking a deal last week making Airbus half owner of the C series and plans to manufacture it in their existing Alabama factory, thus making it “American made” and no longer subject to the tariff. Boeing ended up shooting themselves in the foot big time. The minute the tariff was announced LM was meeting with the Canadians to begin working on a deal to sell them the F-35, which is partially made in Canada anyway.

        • Thomas Svet

          Actually 1990s and early 00s pricing was in the $50-$60 million range. Today’s is in the low to mid 70 million range.That’s mainly from up sizing to the Super Hornet. I’m not sure where you’re getting those numbers from. Unless you’re considering a complete package of weapons and replacement parts.

          You can ramp up the F-35 production as much as you like it will never fall under $100 million per copy. That’s because most of these smaller countries can not afford to buy enough of them to bring the price down much. We technically can’t afford them either but that’s never stopped us.

          • Duane

            Nobody is producing new fourth gen fighter attack aircraft for less than $150M.

            The F-35A is already under $100M a copy – $94.6M to be precise, at LRIP-10 contract pricing. LRIP-11 is under negotiation, will be a done deal sometime in the next couple of months, and will be somewhere in the mid to high 80s. FRP will come in at $80M or less within less than two years.

            The F-35 is way cheaper than any current new production supersonic fourth gen fighter/attack aircraft in the world that is capable of surviving against anything but jihadis in pickup trucks.

  • omegatalon

    Unless there has been some type of ‘collusion’ between Boeing and the Trump Admin; this move makes no sense as while the F/A-18 Super Hornet is a great jet, it’s doubtful Boeing can integrate stealth features into the aircraft’s design without a complete redesign as their attempt to add stealth to the F-15 Eagle didn’t go well because as they say this is just putting lipstick on a pig.

    • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

      Boeing have been shilling these “advanced” improvements for 4 years and no one has taken them up on the offer.

      You are right.
      They can’t shoe-horn everything they promise in and pretend that its good to go.

  • Curtis Conway

    These SLMed F/A-18E/F Super Hornets & EA-18G Growlers are going to be around for awhile. We should bring them up to Blk III standards during the rebuild. Digital backbone and accesses and passage facilities for the future upgrades must go in so the maturing technology can be installed. Latest AESA radar upgrades and MADL should go without mentioning.

    • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

      Not an easy task.

      Despite Boeing’s claims the “block 3” or “advanced super hornet” doesn’t actually exist in its totality.
      They promise
      – A new improved flight computer including wide screen touch screen display
      – Enclosed weapons pod
      – A new engine with 20% more thrust
      – More stealth improvements
      – CFTs

      They have flown demonstrations of some of these aspects, but not all.

      There is a reason the Navy has not appeared enthusiastic about approving all the above.
      It will take yet more time and R&D money to put it all together and test.

      If Boeing to get asked for to SLEP some Rhinos, it will more than likely be to current standard.
      They don’t really have the time to do otherwise.

      • Bryan

        Bringing the SLM’ed bird to the current block is what is going to happen. Yes, Boeing is trying to sell some items that are not in current inventory. It’s advertising at it’s best. We should bring the SLM’ed up to current standards and avoid the advertising.
        But placing things like Conform fuel tanks are very low risk for high reward. Things like new engines might be better left until the bugs are worked out.

      • Curtis Conway

        – Enclosed weapons pod
        – A new engine with 20% more thrust
        – More stealth improvements
        – CFTs
        All do exist and have been flown. It is not only well understood, but flown in demonstration of the technology for over a year (some longer). The engines you and I (and GE) invested in, and it’s about time we got a return on that investment.
        As for the new computer and display, I would like to see a demonstration FIRST as well. If we had that, congress might be more willing to entertain the concept. As it is, the digital backbone and facility in the fuselage for future improvements should be provided as those fuselage are opened up and refurbished. Otherwise, we have to crack them open again to make the improvements in the future. The F-35Cs are not going to come on that fast and the current force level readiness must be restored . . . and maintained for the next decades, particularly Marine Super Hornets who get wrenched around the worst, though we probably won’t see some of those for awhile.

  • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

    They keep flogging this ‘block 3’ stuff…. but the Navy isn’t biting.

    I recall an admiral speaking before some Congressional committee several months ago.
    He mentioned that they were using up over 30 fighter jets per year through strenuous ops tempo.

    While the Navy are ordering a few dozen new aircraft, life extensions will be a certainty.